April 6, 2024 

South Carolina’s sparkling defense fuels Final Four triumph over NC State

The Gamecocks broke open a tight game with a near-perfect third quarter

CLEVELAND — Forward Ashlyn Watkins punctuated South Carolina’s masterpiece of mayhem in the Final Four with an emphatic blocked shot late in the third quarter. By applying the finishing flourish to a clinical 10-minute exhibition of defensive excellence, South Carolina achieved a version of basketball perfection that should hang in the Louvre.

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South Carolina’s disruptive defense had to grind so its lethal offense could shine under the glare of the Final Four. The bright lights of the big stage highlighted the sheer determination and hard work the undefeated Gamecocks displayed, expanding a one-point halftime advantage into a comfortable 78-59 triumph over NC State at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse before a rollicking sellout crowd on Friday night. 

“I like the fact that we turned up the heat,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley told reporters postgame. “We put a lot more pressure on them to go deeper in their offense. We put a lot more pressure on the basketball, especially their point guards, the people initiating their offense. Overall, it was their willingness to lock in, just lock in. They didn’t want to lose.”

Sometimes, it’s just that simple.

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South Carolina emerged from the locker room after intermission united by the goal to avoid the pain of another national semifinal loss. The Gamecocks’ defensive intensity helped them outscore NC State 29-6 in the third quarter to open a 61-37 advantage entering the final frame. The numbers were a mathematician’s dream — if you’re a South Carolina supporter.

South Carolina held NC State without a field goal for the final 7 minutes and 46 seconds of the third quarter. The Gamecocks’ swarming, energetic and connected defense also limited the Wolfpack to 1-for-11 shooting during that time.

South Carolina forward Ashlyn Watkins reaches with her left hand to contest a jump shot by NC State guard Zoe Brooks. Their fingers appear to touch after the ball is released.
South Carolina forward Ashlyn Watkins (2) contests a shot by NC State guard Zoe Brooks (35) during the national semifinals at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 5, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

“Coach told us that was a six-point quarter for them,” senior guard Te-Hina Paopao said postgame. “We were shocked because it didn’t feel like that. It felt like we were just out there being locked in on offense and defense. And we just played the game we know how to play. At some point, we don’t know what’s going on. We just know we’re having fun. And we love being out there with each other.”

The Gamecocks had a blast during their third-quarter detonation.

There are top-10 lists for almost everything, from food to movies to sweet moves on the basketball court. But good luck getting anybody from the Gamecocks to rank that third-quarter defense among their top 10 performances of the season. To them, it was just another dominant quarter where they limited a team to single-digit points, the 35th such occasion during this enchanted season.

“I can’t rank it because usually, we play good defense,” sophomore forward Chloe Kitts told The Next in the locker room. “We have some slip-ups on occasion, but I will admit, it was a good performance in that quarter. Seeing our stops lead to fast breaks and easy points felt great. That’s what got us in the flow.”

Junior guard Bree Hall was speechless when describing South Carolina’s performance. But sophomore guard Raven Johnson aptly summarized it:

“Coach is big on defense,” Johnson said. “She got me into playing defense. I take pride in playing defense because my mom tells me defense wins championships. I think our third-quarter run started with our defense, but then we just started playing simple basketball, rotating the basketball and playing through the bigs. When we can stop a team from scoring, it motivates us more to focus on the details we need to be successful. Coach is big on defense. You all know you’ll sit if you don’t play defense.”

Nobody sat for South Carolina during the third quarter, as the players on the bench were consistently on their feet clapping, cheering, high-fiving, smiling, and jumping up and down.

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One of the biggest defensive keys all game was South Carolina’s effort against former Gamecock Saniya Rivers, who finished with five points on 2-for-11 shooting in 32 minutes. Wolfpack guard Aziaha James scored eight of her team-high 20 points in the first quarter. The Gamecocks made her work even harder over the final 30 minutes, and she made NC State’s only basket of the third quarter.

The Wolfpack were held to 27.6% shooting in the second half. With a final tally of 59 NC State points, South Carolina has held four of its five NCAA Tournament opponents below 60 points.

The South Carolina bench stands and cheers. Many players have their hands in the air, and associate head coach Lisa Boyer rises from her seat to clap her hand against her notepad.
South Carolina’s bench erupts during the Gamecocks’ third-quarter surge against NC State in the national semifinals at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 5, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

“We all spoke as a team,” Paopao said of the halftime adjustment during the postgame press conference. “That’s how close we are, and our genuine bond is that we know we can do better. And everyone spoke up, and we just had to trust each other.” 

That trust has gotten South Carolina within inches of completing its quest to win a third national championship since 2017. The Gamecocks have won 73 of their last 74 contests, with the only loss coming to Iowa in last year’s Final Four. This time around, with Iowa defeating UConn, South Carolina will meet the Hawkeyes in a highly anticipated title game on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET.

Related reading: NC State’s party-crashing run ends in Final Four loss to South Carolina

Staley was also proud of the Gamecocks’ offense in the third quarter.

“It was just more simplifying what we were doing,” Staley said. “We were victims of what we worked on, especially ball-screen action. We knew they were going to go under. So we worked a little bit on re-screening. And once they started icing us, we kept trying to do the same things. And stopped dribbling — more passing, more ball movement.

“And once we started having that, it wasn’t magic. It was just simple basketball. Then we just started getting stops, and we got easy buckets. And then we executed in the half court and built ourselves a pretty good lead.”

Leave it to guard MiLaysia Fulwiley to provide the offensive highlight of the third quarter. During the Gamecocks’ 17-1 closing run, the freshman phenom went for a layup in which she switched hands while twisting her legs in the air to score softly off the glass. 

Offensively, South Carolina shot 12-for-20 in the third quarter and was 5-of-9 from 3-point distance. In last season’s national semifinal loss, the Gamecocks made four threes in the entire game. On Friday, South Carolina ended the third quarter with consecutive 3-pointers from Paopao and Hall to further demonstrate its superiority.

“They came into the game having two players shooting 43% from three and one shooting 47% from three,” NC State head coach Wes Moore said. “We knew it was going to be a challenge. You just hope you catch them on a night when they’re not shooting well from the perimeter. It’s the best team they’ve had because of that.

“So a tough matchup. I regret now going to the zone and not getting out of it sooner. But we weren’t aggressive enough in the third quarter.”

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NC State also didn’t have an answer for Gamecocks center Kamilla Cardoso, who finished with a game-high 22 points and added 11 rebounds for her 15th double-double of the season. Watkins grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds to complement her eight points. Overall, South Carolina got scoring from eight players. 

“[I] want to congratulate NC State for making it to the Final Four, making it hard for us,” Staley said. “It was not an easy win, although the score may say differently. But we had to play for 40 minutes for us to win. So proud of them and their effort to get to the Final Four.

“And then I’m just proud of our team, to be able to play on this big stage and not play our best basketball in the first half, come back out, make some small adjustments, and meet the moment to get us to Sunday.”

Written by Rob Knox

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by SI.com, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.

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